Opening just days after Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson were tried in connection with phone-hacking at News International, Richard Bean’s Great Britain turns this deep-seated scandal into a darkly satirical comedy. After months of secret rehearsals, the play exploded onto the stage like a giant confetti popper – for this is an outrageously corrupt world where the press, police and politics waltz together in three-way shamelessness.
Set in the offices of The Free Press (essentially the News of the World), we follow the daily schemes of Paige Britain, its News Editor. Ruthless and hungry to work her way into the country’s elite, she’s the epitome of corruption, ready to screw (over) anyone for more power. Proudly she declares to us, ‘we destroy other people’s lives on your behalf’: the audience might laugh at this ‘joke’, but as with the rest of play, it’s as true as it’s grotesque. Except, as we discover, the paper’s illegal machinations are as much on behalf of the government and the police.
Lucy Punch, taking over Billie Piper’s run in the lead role, is playful as Paige Britain. She reveals in her lack of conscience, never more alive than when at her most unscrupulous: she’s still able to jest when her witch hunt to find the murderer of twin girls leads to the suicide of their innocent father. Rupert Vansittart is suitably repulsive as the future PM she’s bedding, and Robert Glenister is on full, fouth-mouthed form as the paper’s impatient Editor. ‘They’re not lies when we printed them, they just later turned out not to be true’, he says, before barking at a journalist to ‘find a boffin who’s saying Brussell sprouts give us Aids’.
The story and the jokes are utterly brazen: some might deem the comedy to be borderline offensive, but it’s too brilliant a parody of tabloid journalism not to raise a smirk. The set features large video screens that implode with sensational headlines that appear as quickly as they disappear: ‘Immigrants Eat Swans’ and ‘Is Your Vicar On Gaydar?’ to name but a few.
A number reviews have commented on Richard Bean’s failure to present any answers to the problems he dramatises, but I don’t think Great Britain sets out to solve any of them. It might, to an extent, reflect back to us what we have passively allowed to happen in our desire to be ‘entertained’. In that sense, its raucous comicality perhaps masks a more sinister quality, and embeds a deeper question about our own culpability. But as the deliberate lack of subtlety should indicate, this is not a play to take overly seriously.
Great Britain takes a refreshingly quick-witted look at the murky world of media, and creates an urgently contemporary and ultimately fun piece of theatre. It feels more a ‘show’ than a ‘play’, but that is no comment on the substance of Bean’s script; rather, it has an appealing cultural relevance which is likely to endure.